When my aunt was dying of ALS, people would tell me that suffering brings the sufferer closer to God. For the last five years I’ve tried, but failed, to understand and accept that consolation.
ALS is a degenerative disease with no known cure. Within a year after diagnosis, my aunt had lost the ability to talk, eat, and breathe on her own. After three years, she couldn’t move a muscle, not even to lift her own head. She lived the last five years of her life hooked up to a respirator and tubes for feeding and removing waste. When I looked into her eyes in year two of her suffering, I saw that she was very much aware of every excruciating detail of her condition. There was no merciful loss of consciousness as any of that was happening.
So hearing that there is redemptive value in suffering wasn’t consoling. If experiencing great suffering were a prerequisite to closeness with God, I don’t know how most Americans would get there. I don’t think it escapes the notice of people who are not so blessed that plenty of people probably go to Heaven, even after enjoying a lifetime of relatively good health and fortune.
My inability to make sense of suffering tested my faith in God. I was besieged with guilt and fear. Guilt that every day someone else is diagnosed with some debilitating disease or is disabled in some accident, all while I continue to enjoy a relatively unburdened life. Fear that there will be karmic retribution for the blessings I currently enjoy. But ringing in 2008, I said good-bye to guilt and fear.
I suppose I could have said good-bye to my faith, too, but I became too sad contemplating life without it. Instead I concluded I don’t need to make sense of suffering to keep my faith intact.
My faith doesn’t depend on becoming convinced that suffering is good for the person experiencing it. If, in witnessing the suffering of another, a person’s compassion can become a call to action, that would be enough for me.
So this is what I believe: If the experience of suffering can have redemptive value, so can the attempts to alleviate suffering.
I’m not a scientist. I won’t be the one to find cures for the ills of this world. But I know there are other ways to help. My neighbors raise money to buy mosquito nets to fight malaria. They distribute these nets during their travels around Africa. In Washington, we have volunteers who serve as patient advocates for people who are terminally ill. They’ll even come to sit at your bedside if you’re dying …. so you’ll be less afraid …. so you won’t have to die alone. I see redemptive value in that kind of work.
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